On a recent morning at the Laurel Highlands Council headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh, 12-year-old Elly Riegner rummaged through containers of small, circular patches. She picked up a red badge and showed it to her mother, Abby. It’s for archery, and Elly has said she’s eager to earn it herself.
Elly’s brother Vincent is nine years old and has been in Cub Scouts since he was eligible to join at six. Elly said in those three years, she’d often go to her brother’s pack meetings and watch activities, like the Cub Scouts’ well-known model car race Pinewood Derby. This year, for the first time, Elly made a car of her own.
“I [painted it] blue and black,” she said. “I did not have any problems and yes, it went down the track.”
This isn’t the only first Elly will take part in this year. On Feb. 1, the Boy Scouts of America begins calling itself Scouts BSA and will allow girls to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Younger girls have been able to join Cub Scouts for nearly a year, and more than 77,000 joined. Now, older girls 11-17 have a path to earn the organization’s highest rank.
Abby Riegner will be the scoutmaster for the new all-girls troop. This weekend, she and Elly will set up at a district Pinewood Derby competition and talk with girls who are interested in joining Scouts BSA. She said she’s glad girls can take advantage of the 109-year-old program.
“I was just like, ‘that’s awesome,'” she said. “I was the kid who wanted to be a Boy Scout and my daughter kind of missed out on all of that and I wanted to give her an opportunity to do the things that I know she really likes.”
That includes hiking, canoeing and fishing — although Abby said she doesn’t like taking the fish off the hook. She said she thinks her daughter will enjoy cooking the most. Elly attended a day camp with the Webelos last year and loved making an omelet over the campfire.
The new older girls’ troop will be modeled on the boys’, combining the two groups for things like opening pledges and announcements. But the majority of activities and outings will be separate. Abby said because the idea is so new, they’ll be adjusting as they go.
“We’re going to share events, share equipment,” she said. “Then they have some established service projects and we’re going to kind of branch off and find out what the girls are interested in doing.”
Laurel Highlands Council Scouting Executive and CEO Sharon Moulds said the most common question is whether these older scouts troops will be co-ed.
“There are girl troops and there are boy troops,” Moulds said. “Generally what people are concerned about is they think they’re going to merge together … that’s never going to happen.”
It’s important for the development of young men and women to have separate troops, Moulds said, especially in their early teenage years when they’re learning leadership skills.
There has been criticism from Girl Scouts USA, who sued the Boy Scouts last year over their proposed name change. Moulds said Scouts BSA isn’t discouraging girls from joining the Girl Scouts, which, according to the organization, have about 2.6 million members worldwide. Within Boy Scouts, there was also some early resistance to allowing girls, but Moulds said most members have come around.
“It’s kind of a mix because we have some … grandfathers, and they’re saying, ‘Oh, I can get my granddaughter in,'” she said. “They absolutely want their granddaughters to have the same opportunities.”
The decision to invite girls into Boy Scouts was not an easy one, Moulds said. Families told the organization it would be more convenient for their increasingly busy schedules to drop their children off at one meeting, instead of driving to multiple events and activities. Ahead of the February change, Moulds said girls are already telling her they’re looking forward to being involved.
“They’re excited about having the opportunity to do what they’ve seen their brothers do or the other boys do,” Moulds said. “I think a lot of them, what we’re seeing is that they just want to be Eagle Scouts.”
That’s the case for Elly Riegner. With her first day as a scout coming up, she’s been reading up on the ranks and practicing her salutes.